In this workshop, you’ll see the oldest objects you’ll ever encounter – fragments of meteorite as old as (or even older than!) the Earth itself. You won’t just see them from a distance, you’ll pick them up, feel them and study them closely.
Meteorites are fragments of rock and metal which formed out in space, sometimes in the very early stages of our solar system. The samples you’ll see have survived a fiery descent through the Earth’s atmosphere before smashing into the surface.
Before we get stuck in, though, let’s get one thing straight: meteoroids, meteors, and meteorites are slightly different things:
- meteoroids are fragments of material out in space which haven’t yet entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
- meteors are the bright, fast trails you’ll very occasionally see in the night sky. You might call them ‘shooting stars’, but they’re former meteoroids which are burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
- meteorites are meteors which survive their descent to land (or smash into) the Earth. Most are tiny – less than 1mm across – but some are larger. A very few are huge. Ask the dinosaurs about those.
An iron meteorite.
Joe and the children at Oakfield Infant school learning about meteorites.
The workshop includes handling and observing some of the meteorites in our collection. They’re a particularly dashing bunch of rocks, if we do say so ourselves, and we like showing them off:
We’re particularly fond of this beauty, which is one fragment of a huge find from Argentina called the Campo del Cielo. A thousand kilometres northwest of Buenos Aires lies a field of at least 26 craters, dating back four or five thousand years. More than 100 tonnes of meteorite material has been recovered from the area so far – the largest meteorite ever recovered on Earth.
Some of the pieces even have their own names: a 634kg piece donated to the British Museum (and now on display in the Natural History Museum) is known as the “Otumpa Mass”. Our fragment is a little smaller.
Another workshop activity is to simulate impact craters. We did this by dropping large ball bearings into a tray of dry play sand, but it’s easier to do at home by dropping big marbles into a few centimetres of flour. That makes a bit more of a mess, though, and it’s not great for anyone who has respiratory problems, so do take care.
If you look closely, you can see a shower of sand spraying out from around the impact before settling back on top of the crater that’s formed. In a real impact this ejecta accounts for about a third of the volume of the crater, with the rest being material pushed down, out, and up to form the rim.
Y4s at Oakfield Junior school investigating the size of impact craters.
Continue this at home!
Do have a go at the impact crater activity above. Alternatively here is a happy activity for a cold winter’s night: curl up on the sofa and explore this map of sites where meteorites from out in space have smashed holes in the surface of the Earth.
The map lists some of our favourite meteorite impact craters, with links to more information about each. Take a look!
It’s very rare to actually see a meteorite land, but in February 2013 a large meteor was seen over Russia. You can read all about it, and see a video, on the BBC website.